OWLSHEAD MOUNTAINS OVERVIEW
If you've looked over quite a few of my trip reports, you probably have come to realize that the Owlshead Mountains are one of my favorite mountain ranges in Death Valley. There are many reasons that this is the case. To list a few of them -- (1) The isolation and solitude found in the Owlsheads is unparalleled in the park. Despite spending over a half month of time hiking in the Owlsheads throughout my lifetime trips to Death Valley, I've never encountered another hiker. This peaceful solitude is especially evident when you backpack in and camp overnight. (2) The scenery of the Owlsheads is completely different than everything else in the park. Places like the desolate dry lakes Owl, Lost, and Wingate, and the canyons made up of decomposed granite, cannot be found anywhere else in the park, at least not on the same scale. (3) The canyons are fun and interesting. There are wide open spacious canyons and there are narrow canyons. With many of the canyons being officially unnamed, there is a lot to explore and discover. Inside the canyons, there are fun climbs, massive house-sized boulders resting in the wash, and wildlife such as Kit foxes, tarantulas, desert tortoises, and wild burros. To top everything off, almost all of the Owlshead canyons can be loop hiked, meaning that you get to see two canyons during a hike instead of just one. (4) The Owlsheads are more accessible than most people realize. While most people are scared off because the Owlsheads seem so far away from Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, the fact is that you can begin a hike to Talc Canyon without taking your car off of pavement and by only driving one hour south of Furnace Creek. To visit more of the canyons other than Talc, Owlshead, Slickenside, or Wingate, you will need to drive farther south on Harry Wade Road, and the road conditions will vary. But we have never had any problems driving down the Harry Wade Road without 4WD, with the exception of one time when we almost got stuck in sand blowing across the road during a severe windstorm. To further develop interest in and appreciation for the Owlshead Mountains, I am publishing this special report on some of the most interesting locations. I'm going to share with you below details about my personal favorite sights in the Owlshead Mountains. Before sharing with you my Top 14 Owlshead Highlights, please note that at the button link above, you will find a topographical map which shows all of the informally and officially named canyons in the Owlshead Mountains. Only five canyons are officially named -- Talc, Owlshead, Contact, Granite, and Through. The rest of the canyons were assigned informal names based on what is found in them by myself, NPS staff members, and other hikers.
NEW TO THE OWLSHEADS
If you are new to hiking the Owlshead Mountains, you are probably wondering where you should start. Outside of this site, there is only very limited information available about specific places within the Owlshead Mountains. Most resources recommend the Through-Granite Canyons Loop as the only suggested hike for the Owlshead Mountains. Personally, I recommend starting elsewhere rather than taking the Through-Granite Loop if it's going to be your first ever hike into the Owlshead Mountains. The reason for this is that I think that Through Canyon and Granite Canyon both are two of the least exciting canyons in the range. Through Canyon is a relatively wide canyon without a lot of outstanding scenic beauty. The positives of hiking Through Canyon include seeing the Smoke Trees and also hiking out to the overlook viewpoint for the other side of the range (if you can hike that far on a day hike). Meanwhile, Granite Canyon is mostly narrow in the upper portion, but exciting scenery is also quite limited. Keep in mind that this is just my personal opinion and the Through-Granite Loop still makes for a great hike. But my recommendation for hikers new to the Owlsheads is to hike Contact Canyon if you want to hike one of the five officially named canyons. Contact Canyon is quite scenic all the way through (once you actually get into the canyon proper). And a day hike of it ends at an amazing, logical place. Day hikers will be able to reach the colorful section of Contact Canyon located at what I call the 4-way Junction, which is a confluence of side canyons. The colorful area is beautiful and has a lot of spectacular highlights, including a stunning white arch above the canyon. For the informally named canyons, the best one is undoubtedly Sand Canyon. Sand Canyon features a challenging bouldering section, two large sand dunes at the very end of the canyon, and an incredible view of Owl Lake. Sand Canyon is my personal favorite canyon in the range. Smoke Tree Canyon is another very interesting place. The sheer amount of Smoke Trees that you will pass by in Smoke Tree Canyon is quite impressive and will provide many opportunities for great pictures. For those who like to see slot canyon narrows of great beauty, the best place for that can be found within the Smoke Tree Slots. The Smoke Tree Slots are a series of three narrow canyons in close proximity to each other which have towering slots to explore and photograph. The Smoke Tree Slots were discovered by myself and two other hikers in January of 2016. As far as additional beautiful slot canyons, there is also Wingate Slot Canyon. Wingate Slot Canyon contains 1 1/2 miles of stunning narrows and was discovered and named by myself and two other hikers in November of 2014 while on a backpacking trip through Wingate Wash. Along with the canyons, take the time to visit one of the three major dry lakes located within the Owlsheads. The three dry lakes are Owl Lake, Lost Lake, and Wingate Lake. All three are unique and worth visiting. Lost Lake might be a good first dry lake to visit because there is a trail which leads all the way out there. Below, you can find my Top 14 Owlshead Mountains Highlights, which are listed in clockwise order starting from the north.
TOP 14 OWLSHEAD MOUNTAINS HIGHLIGHTS
Wingate Slot Canyon -- In the far northern part of the range, we start out with Wingate Slot Canyon. Reaching Wingate Slot Canyon requires an overnight backpacking trip to reach, being 9 miles from the nearest road. Wingate Slot Canyon is a 1 1/2 mile long slot which goes through several transitions in conglomerate rock. The slot contains beautiful narrows and is one of the Owlshead's great secret places.
Slickenside of Slickenside Canyon -- Located in the northeastern corner of the range is the largest slickenside found in the Owlshead Mountains. The informally named Slickenside Canyon is located relatively close to Talc Canyon. It is quite difficult to hike into, but the slickenside is well worth the effort required to see it. Beyond the slickenside, the canyon branches into several interesting forks hikers can explore.
Headwall of Talc Canyon -- The massive headwall of Talc Canyon is its dominant feature, even when viewed from Badwater Road. It's really awe-inspiring to hike up Talc Canyon and see the headwall looming in front of you, drawing ever closer. But it's even more amazing to stand above the headwall and look down into Talc Canyon. This viewpoint is nearly impossible to reach.
Colorful 4-Way Junction of Contact Canyon -- The colorful section of Contact Canyon is like an Artists Palette in the Owlsheads. There are a great many different colors on display, all enclosed in a very narrow section of canyon near the juction of four smaller canyons. It is a positively beautiful place. At the 4-Way Junction, hikers can also check out several dry falls and a white arch high above the canyon.
Crossing the Amargosa River -- If you hike into any of the officially named eastern canyons, such as Through Canyon and Granite Canyon, during the relatively short and uncommon wet season, you will find yourself facing a formidable but fun obstacle. The Amargosa River could be full of flowing water. As you can see, a river crossing means you will be getting wet. Fun!
Smoke Trees of Smoke Tree Canyon -- Smoke Tree Canyon is the next major canyon south of Through Canyon. While Through Canyon has a few scattered Smoke Trees, Smoke Tree Canyon has a virtual forest of them. The Smoke Trees are scattered throughout a very narrow canyon with ever-changing scenery that is impressive from beginning to end.
Towering slot canyons within the Smoke Tree Slots -- The surprise discovery of the Smoke Tree Slots forever changed the hiking dynamic and overall view of the Owlshead Mountains. The Smoke Tree Slots are three narrow canyons with towering side slots which are impressive and my personal favorite area within the entire mountain range. This can be considered a must-do hike.
Great Dry Fall of Great Dry Fall Canyon -- Huge dry falls in the Owlshead Mountains are hard to come by. In fact, the 50 plus foot dry fall which is found in Great Dry Fall Canyon is the biggest one which has ever been found in a main Owlshead Canyon. Great Dry Fall has to be bypassed around the right side, providing the dramatic view shown below. This dry fall is near the mouth of the canyon.
The Passage of Passage Canyon -- Another rarity in the Owlshead Mountains is canyon narrows within decomposed granite. An exception to this is The Passage which is located in Passage Canyon. The Passage is a narrow corridor which passes straight through a dramatic section of Owlshead decomposed granite rock walls. It is quite a special experience to walk through The Passage.
Twin sand dunes of Sand Canyon -- Sand Canyon has something that no other major Death Valley canyon has, including all of the canyons in the entire park. At the very end of Sand Canyon there are large twin sand dunes which stand in stark contrast to the surrounding terrain. In addition, Sand Canyon has a challenging bouldering section in the lower canyon and an outstanding view of Owl Lake at the very end.
100-foot slot narrows of Owlshead Slot Canyon -- Along with the Smoke Tree Slots, Wingate Slot Canyon, and The Passage, additional slot narrows in the Owlshead Mountains are found in Owlshead Slot. Owlshead Slot is about 100 feet in length and cuts a path directly between walls made of decomposed granite before ending at a dry fall. The next canyon to the south, Wind Caves Canyon, is also an interesting place to check out and makes for a great loop hike.
Wide open area of Quartz Canyon -- Quartz Canyon will keep you busy trying to track down and discover all of the locations where quartz diggings took place a long time in the past. If you find them, make sure you take pictures, but leave the quartz behind. One of the neatest aspects of Quartz Canyon is the open area that is in the middle canyon. The best views of this area can be seen from the cliffs above the canyon.
Lost Lake, Owl Lake, and Wingate Lake -- The three major dry lakes within the Owlshead Mountains are all amazing places to visit. Long drives and long hikes are required to visit each of them. Owl Lake is the most easily accessible and sometimes has wild burros roaming the lake and colorful grasses growing on it. Lost Lake has a unique long shape to it. Wingate Dry Lake (pictured below) is smaller but very intimate and beautiful. It is perhaps the most isolated spot for hikers in the entire park.
Mining ruins of Epsom Salt Works -- Located at the far western side of the Owlsheads is a location of important historical significance. The Epsom Salt Works was once home to the Epsom Salt Monorail. Ruins of the monorail framing and mining activity can be explored along with the Crystal Hills. The Crystal Hills are very colorful and there is a lot to see in this area, including possible sightings of desert tortoise.
A FINAL WORD ON THE OWLSHEADS
The pictures and captions above have been provided to give you a small glimpse into the scenery on display within the Owlshead Mountains. There is much more to see in the area as you will notice if you check out my large amount of individual trip reports on the area. I strongly encourage all of my fellow Death Valley hikers to give the Owlsheads a chance and visit them sometime. Of course, many of you already have hiked in the Owlsheads. So please write to me and share your stories of visiting the Owlsheads, as I love to hear from fellow hikers who have explored this region of Death Valley National Park.